Any creative work includes a performance. This is as true for academic productions as it is for theatrical ones. The choreographic rules for the production of an academic thesis or dissertation are usually carefully and tightly specified, according to the ‘rules of engagement’ of the discipline. Often these rules of academic discourse, so painstakingly developed by the history of the discipline, are appropriate and serve us well. At other times, these constraints can inhibit the performance of a creative work.
It has been necessary to step outside the traditional academic protocols for the performance of this PhD thesis. Originally located within the discipline of suicidology, it became apparent that the arguments this thesis seeks to make would not be possible within the strictures of the current discourse of suicidology. Although it still seeks to speak to suicidology, it does so from outside the discipline, arguing for a voice that is rarely heard by and, it would seem, rarely welcomed into suicidology. This is the voice of the suicidal person.
For the performance of this thesis, the form that has been adopted is known in Australia as a ‘creative thesis’ – unfortunate terminology as it suggests there is such a thing as a non-creative thesis. The origins of the creative thesis were to help bring the creative arts – a novel, an art exhibition, a dance or theatrical performance – into academic scholarship, and vice versa. The creative thesis has two components. The first is a ‘creative’ artefact of some kind – a novel, paintings, play or performance – that brings the eye of the artist to the research question. The second component is an ‘exegesis’, or commentary, which is a scholarly performance of the research that explores and contextualises the creative component within an academic discourse.
The creative artefact of this thesis is Thinking About Suicide, the companion volume to this exegesis, which is not a novel but a work of creative non-fiction – or literary non-fiction as a fellow ‘creative student’ once encouraged me to call it. Thinking About Suicide is the primary component of the thesis. It seeks to give voice to one individual’s – the Candidate’s – personal experience of suicidality. There are in fact two voices in Thinking About Suicide, as explained in the book’s Prologue. Both are first-person voices of the experience of suicidality (and of suicidology). In the literature of suicidology it is clear that the first-person voice of those bereaved by suicide is welcomed into the discipline but not, for reasons this thesis examines, the first-person voice of the suicidal themselves. First-person research, which is what this thesis represents, is generally not recognised by mainstream suicidology as ‘real’ research, which is the main reason that this thesis must speak to suicidology from outside, rather than from within, the discipline.
The performance of Thinking About Suicide as a creative non-fiction book is not only to allow the first-person voice to speak. The thesis also seeks to speak to a broad community, not just the academic one, as a demonstration of its argument that understanding and responding to suicidality has to be a whole-of-community enterprise. Suicide prevention cannot be left solely to the ‘experts’. To make that argument, Thinking About Suicide is therefore written in plain language to speak to that audience. For the same reasons, it is also presented – performed – with the ‘look and feel’ of a book from your local library or bookstore. The layout on the page, contravening the usual double-spaced (etc) protocols of academic writing, is designed to encourage the reader to experience the book as a book – that is, as close as possible within the context of an academic thesis to how its intended audience would experience it. Compromises and allowances have been made, however, for the academic thesis format (single-sided and wide borders), in particular to give examiners space to make whatever markings they might need to make on the document as they assess it. But the presentation and layout is deliberately designed, as part of my academic performance, to remind the reader of the intended audience for Thinking About Suicide.
The language of Thinking About Suicide is also carefully chosen with this aim in mind. It is sometimes emotional and evocative, at other times irrational, contradictory or paradoxical. Again, the Prologue explains this aspect of the voices in Thinking About Suicide. One particular challenge was to avoid technical or academic language, which might lose some readers, but without ‘dumbing down’ the arguments in the book, which would not only dilute my arguments but would be an insult to the intended audience. For instance, intersubjectivity has emerged as a central concept in my research but was a new word to me not that long ago. I have therefore been careful (and I hope gentle) in introducing such terminology in Thinking About Suicide, though a more academic audience is assumed in the exegesis. In particular, in the Interlude in Thinking About Suicide, I caution the reader that some technical and academic discussion is necessary in just that one section of the book (which can be skipped by readers more interested in just the ‘story’ of the book).
The exegesis is closer to the more traditional academic dissertation in its format and presentation – or performance – although I share my supervisor’s preference for 1.5 rather than double line spacing. But there are some novel features in the performance of the exegesis too. First, and perhaps not so novel, the bulk of the exegesis is a selection of academic papers that have been written during the course of my research. These have all been presented at conferences and/or published, with the exception of the most recent paper ‘A Phenomenology of Suicidality’. This paper was written for and submitted to the 2005 annual conference of the American Association of Suicidology (AAS) but was only accepted for a poster, not an oral, presentation, which meant I was unable to attend the conference as funding was only available for oral presentations. The papers selected for the exegesis represent the major topics and key arguments of the thesis.
Perhaps slightly more novel is the text of the exegesis that weaves the papers together into a coherent whole. This text – which you are reading now, highlighted with the use of coloured paper – presents that overall argument of the thesis. It also locates the work within the combined contexts and discourses of phenomenology and of Mad Culture (rather than suicidology), as explained later. The performative goal here is to alert the reader to the discussion or commentary in the exegesis written at the conclusion of the research, in contrast to the academic papers that reflect the history and development of the thesis – as well as arguing specific issues arising in the research. There is one appendix to the exegesis, another published academic paper, included because its topic and the research it documents inform all the other papers, as well as the overall exegesis and thesis in combination.
The exegesis is a commentary on my research, but this does not mean that it is specifically a commentary on Thinking About Suicide. The two documents were designed to be independent of each other so that each one stands by itself as its own complete document. It would not be necessary, therefore, for one to be read before the other, which is part of the reason why they are separately bound (another design decision in the performance of the thesis). While I think that this goal has largely been achieved, I would encourage any reader of both documents (such as my examiners) to at least have an initial familiarity with Thinking About Suicide before starting the exegesis. Although the exegesis does not examine specific details of Thinking About Suicide, it does refer to it in fairly general terms as an example of a ‘thick’ phenomenological description. The concept of a ‘thick’ phenomenological description (borrowing from the anthropologist Clifford Geertz) is central to and explained in detail in the exegesis, but not in Thinking About Suicide. So to fully appreciate this concept when it is encountered in the exegesis, it is recommended, but not essential, that the reader at least be familiar with Thinking About Suicide as a tangible example of the concept. Other than that, the two volumes of the thesis can be read in any order.